The death of Krzysztof Kieślowski during open-heart surgery in 1996 at the early age of 54 deprived Poland and the world of a director of such exceptional powers that even the occasionally churlish Stanley Kubrick talked of his “dazzling skill”.
The Decalogue, now being shown at the ICA, was perhaps his greatest achievement. The 10 films of about one hour each were made for Polish television and said to be inspired by the 10 commandments.
They were received with acclamation throughout the world. Two of them, A Short Film About Love and A Short Film About Killing, were remade into full-length features. The others were not, but were often shown in pairs, as they are tomorrow.
Whatever the format, the results astonished many filmgoers and will continue to do so for many years to come.
Each takes place within the same Warsaw housing block where characters we have seen before come and go. In A Short Film About Love an adolescent boy watches out of the window of his flat a much older woman he is obsessed with. But when she allows him a visit, she can only humiliate him. In the end, however, the situation is reversed. No one wins, as often happens in life.
Easily the most terrifying of the stories is Killing, in which a young man murders a taxi driver and is duly executed. The murder is horrifying and so is the culprit’s death. So much so that not long after the film was shown, the death penalty was abolished in Poland. The full-length expanded version shows on Sunday.
These two films showed Kieślowski’s greatest strengths. They were his ability to involve audiences not by telling them his own philosophy but by illustrating the difficulties of life and the decisions people make trying to negotiate a way through them.
He was not a polemicist but a filmmaker who told us a great deal simply in the way he fashioned his stories. Kubrick was right when he wrote that you never see the ideas coming and don’t realise until much later how profoundly they have touched your heart.
Krzysztof Kieślowski: The Decalogue 25th Anniversary Retrospective is at the ICA
(27 Nov 2014 – 9 Dec 2014)